This article was first broadcast in Episode Thirty-Two on 18th July 2018.
Lennon: 248… 249… 250….
Ryu: Lennon, are you using a slingshot to fire gold pieces at my knife throwing target?
Lennon: Yes. Sorry, I should have asked first.
Ryu: No, that’s fine but…why?
Lennon: Well Ostron said he was going to be doing something with action economy and I thought I could help.
Ryu: …You know, I’m always kind of impressed at how amazingly wrong you are about what Ostron’s doing at any given time.
Lennon: What do you mean?
Ryu: No, I need his notes. Ostron?
Gnomish Workshop door opens
Ostron: What’s up?
Ryu: Action Economy?
Ostron: Right, here’s what you need.
If you wander into the same sort of discussions that Ostron does on a regular basis, you may have seen or heard the term “action economy” get thrown around, and you’ve probably found at least one person that seems very interested or possibly obsessed with the concept.
Action economy usually has two “levels” to it. The basic, literal level is the concept that all players have to learn about 5th edition: action economy is the available actions each character has during combat rounds (move, action, possible bonus action, and reaction). There have been multiple charts and cheat sheets designed by members of the community for newer players who need to learn about the concept, and if you do a search for “5th edition action economy chart” you’ll find a few good examples.
However, all of that is concrete information, certainly not enough to get internet forum lurkers riled up and writing pages of information. That brings us to the larger gameplay concept of action economy. Being almost a metagaming concept, there isn’t a clear definition, but if you boil it down to the simplest concept, it’s “the side with the most moves wins.”
If you’ve ever DMed or looked at the dungeon master’s guide and read the section on how CR for encounters is supposed to be calculated, this concept is included in those rules. As you add more monsters to an encounter, the CR gets multiplied rather than added. The reason is that the closer you get to giving the enemies as many actions as the players, the harder the encounter will be.
For players, the practical result of this is kind of obvious; the more enemies there are in an encounter, the harder it will be to win. But beyond that, the nuances of how action economy affects an encounter can give you some help on a tactical level.
As we already mentioned, whichever side has more actions is going to have an upper hand in combat. That means that abilities and spells that either grant extra actions to your side or ones that take actions away from the other side can have a profound influence on the encounter. Players with access to spells like Haste or Hold Person have obvious ways of altering the action economy in the party’s favor, but any character with multiple attacks can have the same level of influence. When a fighter can hit multiple times on their turn, they’ve essentially made themselves count as extra combatants, when considered from an action economy point of view.
Now, before all of the powergamers get up in people’s faces and say “I told you so,” that doesn’t mean that the only thing players should be doing is whatever gives them or their allies the most actions each turn. You have to consider the larger picture. Having the wizard use lightning bolt to eliminate the archer on a ridge rather than Hasting the fighter standing toe to toe with the giant is probably the right call; the wizard will for sure damage the archer, and may remove it, whereas giving the fighter an extra attack won’t have any effect if the fighter doesn’t hit. However, if you’re the cleric, you probably SHOULD wake up the unconscious rogue rather than trying to Guiding Bolt the creature that knocked them down. Having another combatant active on your side of the fight is better than attacking an enemy where you may or may not hit and may or may not be able to take them out. In each case the characters are going for the guaranteed effect on action economy.
On the other side of the screen, most DMs struggle with action economy constantly, though they may not be aware that’s what’s giving them headaches. If you as a DM have ever thrown a horde of low level creatures against your party and suddenly realized the player characters were all dying, that’s action economy. The same problem crops up if you have a huge single monster you expected to be a challenge only to have the players knock it over and start jumping up and down on it like a bouncy castle.
To break those specific examples down, the low level creatures on their own wouldn’t be a problem but when you put in a lot of creatures, action economy starts winning the fight for them. For those of you who remember our Dice Probability segment and aren’t repressing it as part of your therapy, the law of large numbers is what’s killing the players here. The sheer number of times they get to act when the players don’t means the players are at a severe disadvantage. Even if the enemies only hit 20% of the time, 20% of 30 creatures is still 6 hits each round, and that’s just the average. It can be mitigated by making the creatures hit very infrequently, give them very low or non-lethal damage, or have them act not in their best interest. By that we mean, for example, don’t have them go after the squishy warlock they can hit, but have them keep hammering away at the plate-armored paladin. This is easier to “fudge” with creatures that aren’t supposed to be intelligent.
A similar issue shows up when you’re using lower level creatures but they have abilities that limit or eliminate players’ actions. The Roper is an excellent example of this. The Roper is a CR 5 creature. If you pit them against a party of 5 level 8 characters, the CR calculations say it should be a medium difficulty encounter. The problem comes up when you consider each roper has the ability to grapple and restrain up to four creatures from 50 feet away. That means it’s entirely possible the two creatures can hold every other party member out of melee range while they draw in and make advantage attacks against just one of them. Even if their allies have ranged attacks, the restrained status means they’re attacking with disadvantage. Moral of the story: even if you go beyond the CR and study the damage and HP of a creature you’re going to throw against the players, pay attention to the abilities; if something can take away player actions or give free actions to allies of the creature, the fight is going to be tougher than the math would suggest.
At the other end of the scale, the problem of setting up an epic fight with a so-called boss monster is well known and often discussed, and action economy is at the heart of it. No matter how big or bad the monster is, the reality is the players usually have 4 to 5 times as many attacks as whatever the monster does, so unless the monster can hit every player character each time it goes, it’s going in with a severe handicap. If it’s statistics are high enough that the players aren’t a threat, then very often it can also kill the entire party without too much effort, so that doesn’t help either. Most such monsters have mitigation factors built-in so they won’t be completely overwhelmed; creatures with legendary actions get more actions for free, so they aren’t limited to just acting on their turn, and many also have lair actions that mean the environment is effectively another combatant using actions on their side. Despite that, many guides on setting up so-called boss fights recommend giving the boss some minions or setting up the lair in such a way that some of the player characters will have a harder time attacking the monster directly right out of the gate. Legendary resistance is also a key to this; to avoid having the one and only creature totally shut down by a charm or sleep spell, they have the ability to just disregard a failed save.
Unfortunately if you see action economy as a major issue, there’s not a lot that can be done beyond some of the suggestions you see here. Some more esoteric mitigation ideas involve things like the so-called “Greyhawk initiative” system, where doing more things on one’s turn has a negative impact on when you get to act, but many of those solutions introduce their own problems. The best thing players can do right now is be aware of the reality and try to make Action Economy work in their favor, while DMs look for a good balance to make encounters challenging but not insurmountably deadly.
Lennon: Oh, okay then. So, yeah, what I was thinking when he said “Action Economy”, I kinda saw it differently in my mind. Would you mind picking up the gold whilst I return the slingshot?
Ryu: Sure! Ok, there you go, 230 gold pieces
Lennon: 230? I could’ve swore I had 250
Ryu: That’s what I said, 220 gold pieces
Ryu: Sorry! 210, my mistake — forgot in D&D you always round down! Anyway, here’s your 200 gold.
Lennon: I’ve clearly lost track of the number of actions somewhere…